Two maps of Vietnam

Below, please find the guides for the discussion on Vietnam. 

Discussion Goals:
  1. To take a chronological journey through the historical events of Vietnam.
  2. To answer several key questions about the history that led up to the Vietnam War:
  3. To discuss the significant foreign policy events that have occurred since the end  of American involvement in Vietnam.
  4. To examine the consequences of the war.

Goal #1: To take a chronological journey through the historical events of Vietnam

Three historical phases of the war in Vietnam:

  1. The Colonial Legacy: Chinese, French, and Japanese Colonialism, 208 BC to 1945
  2. The War between the French and the Vietminh, 1946-1954
  3. The Americanization of the War, 1954-1973

 The Colonial Legacy, 208 BC to 1945

map of colonization of vietnam208 BC   A Chinese general conquers a small area in the northern mountains of what is now Vietnam and proclaims himself emperor of "Nam Viet" - land of the Viets. Chinese colonization begins.   In the next century, the Han dynasty incorporates Nam Viet into Chinese Empire.

AD 40  First organized resistance campaign against Chinese colonialism begins, lasting almost 1000 years.

967 Emperor Binh Bo Linh achieves Independence.  His new state begins to push south, conquering people along the way and reaching its current borders.  Rapid expansion brought about civil wars - primarily between the north and the south  - but Vietnamese still considered themselves one people and one nation.

1627 French missionaries begin their influence in Vietnam.

1802 Vietnam politically unifies under Emperor, Gia Long. The map indicates the full extent of Vietnam's political borders by 1757.

1847 Emperor Tu Duc begins to eliminate Christianity in Vietnam.

1861 French forces capture Cochinchina province.  French colonialization begins. 

1863 French control extends to Cambodia.

Map of French Indochina1873 French begin to move into Tonkin.

1887 France creates the Indochinese Union after its successful move north, beginning in Cochinchina, continuing with Annan, and finishing with Tonkin.  Vietnamese resistance to French colonization begins and lasts for over 20 years.

1893 France absorbed Laos into French Indochina via a treaty with Siam. French Indochina now consists of the modern nations of Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia.

1919 Ho Chi Minh tries to petition President Woodrow Wilson at Versailles peace conference for self-determination in Vietnam.

1930 Ho and comrades form the Indochinese Communist party in Hong Kong.

1932 Bao Dai, theoretically emperor since 1925, returns to Vietnam from school in France to ascend throne under French tutelage.

1940 Japan occupies Indochina in September, but leaves French colonial administration intact.

1941 Ho Chi Minh covertly returns to Vietnam to form the Vietminh - a national independence movement founded in South China - whose goal was to seek independence for Vietnam from the French Empire and from the Japanese occupation. The immediate goal of the Vietminh was national independence; the move to a communist political agenda occurred several years later. The Vietminh opposition to Japan was supported by both the United States and the Republic of China.

1945  On March 9th, the Japanese take over French administration throughout Indochina; two days later, Bao Dai proclaims map vietnam 1945independence of Vietnam under Japanese auspices. Japanese colonization begins.

Vietminh fights and overthrows Japanese; Vietminh in power by August 18.

On September 2, Ho declares independent Democratic Republic of Vietnam.  For the first and only time in modern history, Vietnam is united and free from foreign domination  - for 2 weeks.

On September 13, British forces land in Saigon and return the ruling authority of southern Vietnam to French.  Nationalist Chinese occupy northern Vietnam. Vietnam is formally partitioned into South and North Vietnam.

On September 26, the first American - and OSS officer - dies in Vietnam.

The War between the French and the Vietminh, 1946-1954

1946 At the conference table, the French and Vietminh disagree - French want to keep Vietnam divided at the 17th parallel; Vietminh want unification.  They finally reached agreement in March - France recognized Vietnam as a "free state" within the French Union; agreed to send troops north to replace the Nationalist Chinese; and agreed to a referendum to determine reunification of Tonkin, Annam, and Cochinchina. The French violate these agreements and proclaim a separate government for Cochinchina in June. Hostilities begin between the French and Vietminh.

French warships bombard Haiphong in November and Ho's government is forced out of Hanoi; War officially begins between the French and Vietminh. This is often known as the beginning of the Vietnam War - the first phase between the French and the communist Vietminh.

1950 Ho Chi Minh declares the Democratic Republic of Vietnam is the only legal government.  Soviets and Chinese recognize Ho's government in the north while U.S. and Britain recognize the French government in the south..

Truman authorizes first direct U.S. aid to Vietnam - $10 million for military assistance to the French.  By year's end, U.S. gives France $150 million of aid in planes, tanks, fuel, ammunition, and napalm.  Indochinese War had become international in scope - a direct result of Cold War politics.
1953   In October, France grants Laos full independence as member of the French Union.   Northern Vietminh forces enter Laos in December.
On November 9, Prince Sihanouk declares Cambodia's independence from France.

1954   On March 13, the Battle of Dienbienphu begins. Picture of Prime Minister of Vietnam Diem The French request direct American intervention to help in the battle but Eisenhower declines. The French are defeated on May 7th.  French lost 1,500 soldiers, 4,000 wounded; Vietminh suffered 8,000 deaths and 15,000 wounded.

In April, French seek peace at the Geneva Conference.  In July, agreements call for partition - South Vietnam under French influence, and North Vietnam with Vietminh in control; a vote on reunification within two years; free movement between the North and South for one year; and independence for Laos and Cambodia.

First Vietnam War ends - French leave and Americans enter.  Americans affirm support for new Prime Minister, Diem - a pro-western Catholic backed by the U.S with little support from the South Vietnamese.

The Americanization of the War, 1954 to 1975
1954   By the end of the French phase of the war, the U.S. had spent $2.5 billion in aid to the French (more assistance than France received through the Marshall Plan), and had equipped the entire French army with 300,000 small arms and machine guns. map vietnam 1954
Thousands of Catholic refugees fled Northern Vietnam to the South where they felt they could live without persecution under Diem.   This new population further fractures the delicate politics of South Vietnam.
1955  U.S. government agrees to train South Vietnamese army and the government exists almost exclusively on US aid.
Diem rejects Geneva accords and refuses to participate in nationwide elections on reunification. Nonetheless, U.S. keeps his government alive, supports Diem's position not to hold elections, and holds Diem up to the western world as the heroic enemy of communism.  Vietnam remains divided. Diem begins suppressing all opposition to his regime.
1957   Soviet Union proposes that North and South Vietnam be admitted to UN as separate states; favors permanent division of Vietnam.
In October, Communist insurgent activity begins in South Vietnam.

1958 Guerrilla activities begin among South Vietnamese against Diem's excesses - support of landlords over peasants, exploitation of people, pro-Western support, and oppression of dissent.  Vietminh brings aid to guerrillas in south.

1960   North Vietnam imposes universal military conscription in April;  Hanoi leaders form National Liberation Front (NLF) for South Vietnam which Saigon dubs the "Vietcong."  The NFL declares a war against the government of the South.

Laotian government falls; a neutralist ruler comes to power and receives Soviet aid.  CIA helps form opposition faction favorable to the U.S.
1961 In March, President Kennedy asserts US support for Laotian sovereignty. However, he also covertly gives permission for the US military to enter the mountainous regions of Laos and secretly train Hmong soldiers for an eventual fight against the Communist Laotians. Map of areas in Southeast Asia where Hmong population lived before the Vietnam War(See red box on the map.) Thus, three years before we send ground troops into Vietnam, the U.S. violated the Geneva Convention by sending advisers to Laos to get involved in the growing struggle between pro- and anti-communist Laotians.

Influence of Vietcong grows in South Vietnam:  500 civilians and Diem officials have been assassinated and 1,500 people killed by Vietcong.  Kennedy decides to give Diem more equipment and advisers in October for "strategic hamlet" policy - creating isolated villages to fight the Vietcong.

1962  American Military Assistance Command forms in South Vietnam, Feb. 6; by mid-1962, American advisers increased from 700 to 12,000.
Vietcong estimated to have around 300,000 members.
1963  16,000 American military "advisors" are in South Vietnam, but some are also seeing "action"; $500 million American aid is sent during the year.

Buddhist monks and students begin to protest and to use the American media to accentuate Diem's oppression. On June 16, Buddhist monk Thich Quang Duc set himself on fire in downtown Saigon to protest the war. Photo of Buddhist Monk setting himself on fire in Vietnam in 1963The televised death was a turning point in the war as it was designed to get public opinion to turn against the Diem regime and to get American support for the war. Diem and his brother, Nhu - head of the secret police and intelligence - begin to persecute the Buddhists.

On November 1, Vietnamese generals stage a coup against Diem and Nhu with  US knowledge and permission; both are murdered on Nov.  2nd.

In November, President Kennedy is assassinated; Lyndon Johnson inherits the legacy of the Vietnam War and the promise not to lose one square foot of Asia to the Communists - citing as have two presidents before him, the domino theory.

Political Cartoon of the domino theory

1964  In January, General Khanh seizes power in Saigon with American backing; in March, U.S. vows full support for Khanh.  North Vietnam, citing American colonization in South Vietnam, escalates war and increases support to Vietcong.
In March, the US secretly sponsors an air war in Laos designed to get rid of the Pathet Lao (Communist) forces.  For eight years, Laos becomes the most heavily bombed nation in the world - almost all of it in secret.  There are no combat troops in Laos, only military advisors and CIA agents.  US financial commitment is 10 times that of the Laotian national budget.

On August 2, the USS Maddox radios it is under attack from three North Vietnamese Navy P-4 torpedo boats 28 miles away from the North Vietnamese coast in international waters and reports that it had evaded a torpedo attack and opened fire which forced the torpedo boats away. Four US jets launched from the aircraft carrier USS Ticonderoga (CV-14) then attack the retiring P-4s. One US aircraft is damaged, three North Vietnamese torpedo boats are damaged, and four North Vietnamese sailors are killed and six are wounded; there are no U.S. casualties.

On August 4, the Maddox and the Turner Joy launch a patrol 11 miles from the coast of North Vietnam. The destroyers receive radar, sonar, and radio signals that they believe signaled another attack by the North Vietnamese navy. The ships fire on radar targets amid electronic and visual reports of enemies. Despite the Navy’s claim that two attacking torpedo boats had been sunk, there is no wreckage,Protest poster against Tonkin Gulf Resolution no bodies of dead North Vietnamese sailors, or other physical evidence present at the scene of the alleged engagement.

On August 7, U.S. Congress passes the Tonkin Gulf Resolution giving President Johnson the power to take military action as he saw fit in Southeast Asia.  Thus, he could initiate hostilities without a congressional declaration of war.

1965   In March, Operation Rolling Thunder begins as U.S. military aircraft attacks targets throughout North Vietnam through October 1968. This massive bombardment was intended to put military pressure on North Vietnam's Communist leaders and reduce their capacity to wage war against the U.S.-supported government of South Vietnam. Operation Rolling Thunder marked the first sustained American assault on North Vietnamese territory and thus represented a major expansion of U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War.

3,500 US Marines enter the war as the US commits first ground forces to the War - in so doing, the US takes charge of the War in Vietnam.  War's mission changes from passive defense of South Vietnamese air bases to aggressive offense to destroy the Vietcong and the Communist threat in Southeast Asia.

By the middle of the year, South Vietnamese army is losing the war and the civilian government collapses; the military takes over.

Year's end troop strength is almost 200,000 American soldiers. Yet there is no clear understanding from either the Johnson administration or the American people of the political, social, and economic complexities of the war to which we had just committed American troops.

During the almost three years in which Operation Rolling Thunder operated, 643,000 tons of bombs are dropped and nearly 900 US aircraft are lost. The financial cost of Operation Rolling Thunder was huge: the estimated damage done to North Vietnam by the bombing raids was $300 million and the cost to the US of these raids was estimated at $900 million.

1966  Year's end troop strength is 400,000 American soldiers..
1967  Problems in Cambodia become more publicly apparent with the rise of the communist Khmer Rouge.
For the first time, an opinion poll shows that the majority of Americans do not support the war in Vietnam.

Year's end troop strength is 500,000 American soldiers.

1968  In late January, on the eve of the Chinese New Year, the North Vietnamese launch the Tet Offensive.  South Vietnam won the battle, but the costs were enormous: 8,000 dead, the historic city of Hue was destroyed, 3/4 of the survivors lost their homes.  Tet becomes the turning point of the War - although the Communists did not win control of the cities, they held on to most of the rural areas and had scored an impressive political victory with the Vietnamese.  Many Americans begin to think we cannot win the war. Thus, the American strategy changes - New York Times article announced LBJ will not seek reelectionAmericans continue to fight for the same objective, an Independent South Vietnam - but at the same time, we begin to negotiate for peace and to withdraw our troops.

On March 31, Lyndon Johnson announces he will not seek reelection.

Anti-war violence erupts at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago.  The size of and support for the protests became a major news story and introduced many Americans for the first time to the popularity of the anti-war effort.

Some members of President Johnson's cabinet begin to seriously question the war. Clark Clifford, Secretary of Defense, suggests getting out. Johnson chooses to remain, but not escalate the war.

In October, Operation Rolling Thunder ends when President Johnson offers its termination as a way of getting the North Vietnamese to a negotiating table.

1968 Presidential Election see the Democratic vote split by the war and results in the election of Republican, Richard Nixon.

Year's end troop strength is 540,000 American soldiers; 40,000 Americans had died and 250,000 had been wounded.  Americans have invested over $100 billion dollars in Vietnam.

1969   At the beginning of the year, American aircraft are dropping 6 times more  bombs on South Vietnam (in order to wipe out the Vietcong) than they dropped on North Vietnam.  Creates 6 million refugees. At the same time, peace talks begin in earnest in January.
On March 18, newly-elected President Nixon begins secret bombing of Cambodia without permission of Prince Sihanouk.

On May 14, Nixon proposes simultaneous withdrawal from South Vietnam of American and North Vietnamese forces; first troop withdrawals occur in June; a total of 60,000 are withdrawn by December.  Year's end troop strength is 480,000 American soldiers.

In November, Nixon announces a new policy that will enable American troops to better trains South Vietnamese troops to assume responsibility for the war - Vietnamization.

1970  A coup occurs in Cambodia when Sihanouk leaves for a state visit and Lon Nol becomes President.  Lon Nol receives US support and begins to form an army and promote hatred against the Khmer Rouge and the Vietnamese living in Cambodia.  In April, American and South Vietnamese forces attack Cambodian Communist sanctuaries to search for arms depots and enemy forces using the neutral nation as a sanctuary.   Nixon justifies actions because the communists have failed to support Cambodian neutrality; in reality, we had not supported the Geneva Convention.  US loses 350 men in the 60-day operation.  As we leave, Cambodia is plunged into a civil war.
Large anti-war activities spread throughout the US in May.

U.S. Congress, in protest against Nixon's broadening of the war, terminated the Tonkin Gulf Resolution of 1964.

At year's end, American troop strength is 280,000.

1971  In January, the Vietnamese communists attacked Cambodia for the first time.  Within days, American soldiers arrive to help with military advise, equipment delivery, and decision making.  American air power and funds keep Lon Nol's army alive without commitment of American combat troops.
U.S. supports South Vietnamese invasion of Laos. In fact, while we are de-escalating our support of South Vietnam, we are escalating our support of Cambodia and Laos - even though we do not commit ground troops, we commit enormous military aid and American dollars.

Pentagon Papers appears in New York Times revealing that US leaders had frequently lied to Americans about our involvement in the war.

Political cartoon about vietnamAt year's end, American troop strength was 140,000. While we are deescalating support of Vietnam, we are escalating our support of Cambodia and Laos. Although we have no ground forces in either place, we are deeply involved with military aid and American dollars.

1972 North Vietnam launches offensive across demilitarized zone on March 30; Nixon authorized bombing of area near Hanoi and Haiphong on April 15.  Nixon announces mining of Haiphong harbor and intensification of American bombing of North Vietnam on May 8.
Cease-fire talks begin in October; South Vietnamese President Thieu refuses to accept conditions of the cease fire.

1972  Nixon orders bombing of areas around Hanoi and Haiphong; communists agree to resume diplomatic talks when bombing stops.

1973 Talks resume on January 8; formal cease-fire agreement is signed on January 27th: U.S. promises to withdraw all of its troops within 60 days; Vietnamese troops are to stay in place; and a coalition government including the Vietcong would eventually be formed in the South.  War ends, but not the rivalry between North and South.

Last American troops leave Vietnam, March 29. When the U.S. left, the South Vietnamese people were astonished; given our reputation as "the victors," they had not anticipated a U.S. withdrawal. In total, over 2-1/2 million Americans fought in map vietnam 1975Vietnam, 58,000 died and 300,000 were wounded.

U.S. steps up it's bombing campaign against the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, dropping over a quarter of a million tons in six months.  Congress does not become aware of Nixon's secret bombing until four years after it began.  On August 15, Congress demands that the bombing stops.

U.S. Congress passes the War Powers Act limiting the power of the President to make war for a maximum of 60 days without congressional consent. (See the cartoon above)

1974  In January, the North Vietnamese announces that the war has begun again.

1975  On April 30, North Vietnamese forces take over Saigon and the last American forces flee. South Vietnam surrenders to North Vietnam, ending the war and reunifying the country under communist control. Washington extends embargo to all of Vietnam. The War is finally over.

In Cambodia, the Khmer Rouge gain control in late April and the war is over.

The Vietnam War unfolds -


Goal #2: To answer several key questions about the history that led up to the Vietnam War:

 Goal #3: To discuss the significant foreign policy events that have occurred since the end  of American involvement in Vietnam
Photo of Vietnam memorial wall1978  Vietnam starts to repress its ethnic Chinese minority in November; in December, thousands of "boat people" flee Vietnam.
In December, Vietnam invades Cambodia and topples Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge government, ending its reign of terror.
1979  Western European countries and non-communist Asian nations support a U.S.-led embargo against Vietnam, in protest against invasion of Cambodia.

1982  In February, Vietnam agrees to talks on American MIAs (Missing in Action). On November 11, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, "The Wall," is dedicated in Washington, D.C.

1984 The three soldiers statute at the Vietnam Memorial is dedicated at the Wall.

1988  Vietnam begins cooperation with United States to resolve fate of American servicemen missing in action (MIA). 3 soldiers vietnam

1989  In September, Vietnam completes Cambodia withdrawal.

1991  The US and Vietnam agree to establish an American office in Hanoi to help determine MIAs' fate. Washington presents Hanoi with a roadmap for phased normalization of relations and the lifting of the embargo.

1992  In April, Washington eases the trade embargo by allowing commercial sales to Vietnam that meet basic human needs, lifts restrictions on projects by American non-governmental and non-profit groups, and allows establishment of telecommunications links with Vietnam. vietnam womens memorial

In December, President George Bush grants permission for U.S. companies open offices, sign contracts and do feasibility studies in Vietnam.

1993 The Vietnam War Women's Memorial is dedicated.

1994  In January, the Senate approves a non-binding resolution urging President Clinton to lift the embargo, a move they felt would help get a full account of Americans still listed as missing in the Vietnam War.

1995  In May,  Vietnam gives a U.S. presidential delegation a batch of documents on missing Americans, later hailed by Pentagon as most detailed and informative of their kind.

On July 11, President Clinton announces normalization of relations with Vietnam, saying the time has come to move forward and bind up the wounds from the war.

In August, a US embassy opens in Hanoi.

1997   On April 10, former POW Douglas "Pete" Peterson is confirmed by the Senate as the first ambassador to Vietnam since the end of the war.

2000   On November 16, President Clinton and his family arrive in Hanoi. Clinton is the first President to visit Vietnam since President Nixon's visit in 1969.

On October 3, the US Senate approves an agreement normalizing trade between the United States and Vietnam.

2001  On November 28, Vietnam's National Assembly ratifies the trade agreement with the US but warned that any US interference in Vietnam's internal affairs could jeopardize implementation of the agreement. The Vietnamese government voiced strong concerns over the US. House of Representatives' passage of a Vietnam Human Rights Act which ties future US non-humanitarian aid to improvements in Vietnam's human rights record.

2004 A National Security Agency historical study is declassified and indicates that the Maddox had engaged the North Vietnamese Navy on August 2 in the Tonkin Gulf incident, but that there may not have been any North Vietnamese Naval vessels present during the incident. The report stated: "[I]t is not simply that there is a different story as to what happened; it is that no attack happened that night. [...] In truth, Hanoi's navy was engaged in nothing that night but the salvage of two of the boats damaged on August 2."

Goal #4: To examine the Consequences of the War

Political Cartoon for TOnkin Gulf Resolution

  1. Communism was neither defeated nor contained. Americans had become involved in a cause that ran counter to the interests of the overwhelming majority of the Vietnamese.  But we had become victims of the Cold War fear of the domino effect. We never under-stood our "enemy," and we failed to believe that our policies could not contain the enemy and that we had no legal or moral right to fight .
  2. The social and economic costs were enormous. contemporary map of Vietnam
  3. Many Americans lost faith in the American "myth" of presidential truth and U.S. "might and right."  The War marked the end of national innocence about our presidents and the reasons behind many of their political decisions.  We were also forced to deal with the fact that in the future, we would not always be the "winners."
  4. The Vietnam War stimulated America's "second civil war".  The real shame for many Americans, was the shame of intervention, not the shame of defeat.  These contrary viewpoints tore Americans asunder.  In the words of General Maxwell Taylor who served in Vietnam, "We didn't know our ally...we knew even less about the enemy.  And the last, most inexcusable of our mistakes, was not knowing our own people."
  5. The media began to suppress its coverage of war.  Vietnam was the first televised war.  Thus, many Americans feel that the reason public opinion turned against the war was because it was televised in all its ugly realities.  Since Vietnam, no other war in which America has been involved has had full or open media coverage.

A final thought - Compare the two maps of Vietnam in 1757 and in 1975 after almost 30 years of war:

To maps of Vietnam in 1757 and 1975